My Lords, having been granted the enormous privilege, at least according to the Whips, of being the last speaker from the Back Benches, having dodged in and out during the course of the day I have enjoyed the debate enormously. It has been distinctly more objective and certainly more knowledgeable than the debates I used to take part in along with other noble Lords further down the corridor. My own personal verdict on the Budget was perhaps best summed up by Martin Wolf, the authoritative economics editor of the Financial Times—I always hide behind someone more distinguished—when he said that it was an,
“act of well-judged caution in risky times”.
I think that that is right.
I fully acknowledge the points made today by our terrible twins of economic debate here, the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Skidelsky, who I think had a point when they said that you can certainly overdo the deficit issue. Absolutely—and all Governments have been guilty of that. Debt is 80% of our total GDP, and it costs no more to finance than when it was 30%, so low are our interest rates. It is a wonderful time to invest. The Government should understand that lesson very clearly.
I also agree with my noble friend Lord Porter, who said that the right thing to do is to invest in housing. Shovel-ready schemes for housing are absolutely the right thing socially and economically. He said that he does not want to be a Treasury Minister, but releasing my noble friend on the Treasury would be a very good thing: it would shake them all up and give a very good counterpoint to the conformist attitudes that I too often detect there. I hope someone takes note of that on the Front Bench—although, of course, I would never want to displace my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Carrington of Fulham that the balance is right in the present circumstances, when we are waiting to see what happens about Brexit, although we should bear in mind what our economic friends said. But a theme throughout the debate, particularly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, whose work in this area I fully applaud, is the need for more technical education. We all know that this country has been very bad on this for decades, under all Governments. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, Germany has been particularly good. I see that Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is today in America, talking to President Trump. I hope that she cuts through all this nonsense about protection and so forth and just whispers into his ear, “Vorsprung durch Technik”. It is the secret of German strength in the car industry—to lead through technology—and we should embrace it as much as the Germans do. As the noble Lord, Lord Bhattacharyya, kindly said, we are getting the outline of a new framework. There are criticisms of the details, but the broad picture is clear and young people are getting the message that it is cool to be an apprentice and cool to have a technical education, which is wonderful.
On the wretched subject of class 4 national insurance contributions for the self-employed, which has been much criticised, it is very interesting to me that the criticism has essentially been that it is a departure from the manifesto. I do not quite go along with Benjamin Disraeli’s view of manifestos. Famously, he said when asked what his view of manifestos was in a general election in the 19th century, that he relied on the “instinctive genius” of the “British people”. That is possibly a little too casual, but the last Conservative manifesto contained 31,000 words and 600 commitments. That is going too far the other way. A balance in manifesto writing should be adhered to, and the Government could well understand from its self-inflicted wound that that is necessary.
But on the underlying issue, the truth is that people are switching to self-employment, as my noble friend Lord Willetts rightly pointed out, because they are better off. They save money and they save on taxation, to the tune of hundreds of pounds per person and maybe thousands in some cases, and that is eroding the tax base at a phenomenal rate. The Office for Budget Responsibility reckons that the Government will lose £3.5 billion by the year 2020, which no Government, Labour, coalition or Conservative, could sustain. Furthermore, the Government have tackled it in a perfectly fair way, and I therefore hope that when Matthew Taylor conducts his review we can come to some more rational and well-supported and perhaps better presented conclusions.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said in her opening remarks that this Budget is neither large nor flashy. I agree: it is a realistic Budget, and we need a realistic Chancellor in these perilous times.